Monday, 16 May 2016

Chamber Music by James Joyce.

Chamber Music was one of James Joyce's very early works, a collection of short love poems first published in 1907. In the collection there are thirty-six poems, and there was a rumour the title was intentionally reminiscent of a chamber pot and the sound of urine tinkling. This however is not the case, merely, I think, James Joyce not taking his earlier works too seriously, and the poems (composed between 1904 to 1906) were written when, Joyce said, "I was a lonely boy, walking about by myself at night and thinking that one day a girl would love me."

The title 'Chamber Music' refers to a form of classic music that could be performed in a very small setting with only a few instruments. Joyce was a musician as well as a writer, and he was a talented singer as well as being accomplished on the piano and guitar. He particularly enjoyed opera as well as traditional Irish songs, and music finds his way in most of his literature, particularly Ulysses and Finnegans Wake. Chamber Music, inspired too by Elizabethan poetry, clearly has a very musical quality and were written to be performed. Samuel Barber, for example, set to music six poems by James Joyce: an example is his 'Sleep Now' (here on YouTube), the thirty-fourth poem in Chamber Music:
Sleep now, O sleep now,
O you unquiet heart!
A voice crying "Sleep now"
Is heard in my heart.
The voice of the winter
Is heard at the door.
O sleep, for the winter
Is crying "Sleep no more."
My kiss will give peace now
And quiet to your heart —
Sleep on in peace now,
O you unquiet heart!
Many of the poems seem full of spring and summer evenings and nights, with a gentle, sleepy quality to them; the third, for example, which was one of my favourites:
At that hour when all things have repose,
O lonely watcher of the skies,
Do you hear the night wind and the sighs
Of harps playing unto Love to unclose
The pale gates of sunrise?
When all things repose, do you alone
Awake to hear the sweet harps play
To Love before him on his way,
And the night wind answering in antiphon
Till night is overgone?
Play on, invisible harps, unto Love,
Whose way in heaven is aglow
At that hour when soft lights come and go,
Soft sweet music in the air above
And in the earth below.
And also the sixteenth -
O cool is the valley now
And there, love, will we go
For many a choir is singing now
Where Love did sometime go.
And hear you not the thrushes calling,
Calling us away?
O cool and pleasant is the valley
And there, love, will we stay. 
In contrast, though, the final poem, XXXVI, on the banging of the heart after a loss -
I hear an army charging upon the land,
And the thunder of horses plunging, foam about their knees:
Arrogant, in black armour, behind them stand,
Disdaining the reins, with fluttering ships, the charioteers.
They cry unto the night their battle-name:
I moan in sleep when I hear afar their whirling laughter.
They cleave the gloom of dreams, a blinding flame,
Clanging, clanging upon the heart as upon an anvil.
They come shaking in triumph their long, green hair:
They come out of the sea and run shouting by the shore.
My heart, have you no wisdom thus to despair?
My love, my love, my love, why have you left me alone?
These are very fine and delicate poems (all of which can be read online here) and a good introduction to the musical quality of Joyce's later works. They're beautiful, fresh, and perfect for these mid-spring days.

And this was my twentieth title for the Deal Me In Challenge. Next week - The Profitable Reading of Fiction by Thomas Hardy.


  1. It's very inspiring to see that you're keeping up with the Deal Me In Challenge. I've been terribly remise with it lately. Argh! And I can't see it changing any time soon! :-(

    1. I'm sure you'll catch up - it's only May :) Deal Me In is my favourite challenge, which makes it a lot easier to stay on top of!

  2. lovely poems; i hadn't expected work like that from Joyce. it was like a secret door opening... also didn't know he was a musician; fascinating, tx...

    1. I didn't know he was a musician either until I read the intro of this! It makes a lot of sense actually, wish I'd known it before now!

      And like you I found these rather unexpected - very unlike his later works :) I'll be interested to read his later poems at some point!


Popular Posts of the Year